I’m From Tennessee. The State’s Coronavirus Response Is Both Frightening and Embarrassing.

FILE - In this Monday, March 16, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus during a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. Mark Humphrey/AP

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In my home state of Tennessee, the Department of Health has made one of the most depressing asks of the pandemic: It has advised doctors and nurses to seek out swim goggles and diapers to fashion into masks. 

Tennessee primary care physician Sonal Gupta recounted the low point of a webinar hosted by the department in which doctors like herself and her husband, an anesthesiologist, heard the suggestion that they “use bandannas, scarves and even diapers in place of face masks and swim goggles or safety goggles in place of eye shields,” according to the Associated Press. She says her husband has been told to wash and reuse his eye mask (under normal circumstances, he replaces a used mask with a new one frequently). 

This is the same state where the governor, Bill Lee, who has been in office since the 2018 midterms, declined to issue a stay-at-home order on Thursday in spite of pleas from medical professionals in Tennessee. (Though, thankfully, several mayors in the state have opted to fill in the gaps.) Instead, he placed his confidence in a sing-songy rhyme that will do nothing except lodge itself in people’s minds as a meaningless earworm: “Do your part, stay apart.” Mr. Lee, this is not the eighth-grade dance, where you must leave room for the Holy Spirit during the slow songs. It’s a damn pandemic, one that is particularly dangerous in your state, where 13 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2012. Tennessee ranks in the top 10 of US states for deaths caused by all sorts of things, according to the CDC; it ranks third in flu and pneumonia deaths. 

I have a dog in this fight. My parents live in Tennessee. My dad, who is and has been the sole economic provider in my family for the vast majority of my life, has to keep going to work or risk losing his job. Several times a day, I am paralyzed by the terror that rushes up through my bones into my brain that one of them will fall ill, and there won’t be a thing I can do about it. I won’t be able to get to them. I won’t be able to advocate for them effectively from afar. I do not trust the hospital they would go to for care. I have spent the past two weeks jumping every time the Google alert I have set for their county and the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” goes off. I have spent hours on the phone with my folks, begging them to take this seriously and to take every precaution available to them. I have watched closely as the numbers in Tennessee have ticked up to nearly 1,000 confirmed cases, knowing that there are certainly more than that. I heard the governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, advise his people not to go to Tennessee because of the rapid acceleration of the virus there. Only Georgia and Louisiana’s numbers lead Tennessee’s in the Southeast right now.

How can I think, how can I breathe, how can I bear to be in California, 2,000 miles away from family and from my home, when things are so royally fucked that the Department of Health is advising doctors to shield themselves from infection using diapers and swim goggles? The answer is, of course, that I have no choice. 

I do, however, have a question: How in the actual hell would one MacGyver a diaper into a face mask? 

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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